What do you get when two ed tech giants come together to talk about the future of learning? You get a thoughtful discussion on how learning in the K-12, higher education and corporate verticals is evolving and an informed conversation on how education has grown over the past 30 years and the bright future it’s headed toward.
The Future of Learning webinar—hosted by Inside Higher Education and moderated by ed tech consultant Phil Hill—united John Baker, CEO of D2L, and Michael Chasen, co-founder and CEO of Class Technologies and co-founder and previous CEO of Blackboard.
These former competitors who once shared the spotlight in the learning management system (LMS) market are now working together to share their expertise and push the boundaries of changing the way the world learns.
During the webinar, both speakers discussed how they broke into ed tech and started in the LMS business. They spoke to the evolution of education—including its rocky relationship with tech—over the past two-and-a-half decades.
Evolving the LMS Market
According to Baker, the LMS has evolved from being viewed as a threat to replace teachers to now being seen as a partner that helps create more human learning experiences.
“Technology is enabling a more human learning experience between the student and the educator, and to other students in the class. We need to make that moment as strong as we possibly can,” he said. “Technology takes care of all the challenges that get in the way of magic happening in that moment, that transformational experience of helping those people really achieve their full potential in life.”
To Chasen, the ed tech market has taken many big steps forward over the years, including two recently. First, instructors started considering and experimenting with how tech could improve interactions with students.
Then, the ramifications of the pandemic forced thousands of instructors and millions of students into embracing online learning.
“What happened during COVID-19 is it created a sense of equilibrium or normalcy between online classes and in-person classes that is going to have dramatic effects on education,” said Chasen. “I think it was the final step in acceptance of online learning.”
As the webinar continued, Hill drilled deeper into the impacts the pandemic had on learning platforms.
How the Pandemic Affected Learning Platforms
For Chasen, especially after founding Class, the pandemic emphasised the need for synchronous learning in online programs. The abrupt shift to online learning led students to have the same high expectations for the quality and frequency of interaction in virtual classes as what they would get in person.
At the same time, many instructors were thrust into figuring out how to teach online. Because of this, teachers are now better trained in running online classes.
“I think you’re going to see a growth and explosion in online learning over the next couple of years, and that’s going to be one positive side effect coming out of COVID-19,” he said.
Baker had a different perspective on the effects the pandemic had on learning, looking at it through the lens of burnout. He stated that high-flex learning environments can be tough on learners and educators, and the latter are now faced with the challenge of getting students to reengage with learning.
One way this can happen is by combining synchronous and asynchronous learning technology.
“I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think we’re going to see a nice weaving of these technologies together that will hopefully enable us to have the best tools for the right moment in that learning journey,” Baker said. “We’ve just got to get the right balance so we don’t burn students out.”
Baker also noted that the pandemic is pushing decision-makers to consider what tech, including their LMS, is best to spur growth and engagement and drive better outcomes.
“Post pandemic, people typically just hunkered down on whatever learning platform they had, but now we’re seeing them accelerating up that adoption curve from just cobbling together tools to now trying to improve learning outcomes and retention.
“In a traditional learning platform evaluation done years ago, you might have gotten 20 people to show up. But now, you’re getting the president and provost having these conversations around reshaping the academic and learning experience for students,” he said.
The Future Relationship of Education and Technology
Over the next five years, Baker sees big moves happening in education.
“I think we’re at the start of a big transformation in education. I don’t think we were ready to do it during the pandemic. We saw how adaptable our campuses, universities, schools and companies were, but I don’t think we got the tooling just right to support a real transformation in how we actually learn or teach, and how we put in place the right investments to do this properly,” he explained.
Hill went on to ask Baker and Chasen about their perspectives on the future of education and tech with regard to student engagement, the role of artificial intelligence (AI) and where they see education in 2030.
Ed tech and Student Engagement
Chasen believes that technology must enable student engagement.
“Using technology, you have to be able to divide people into breakout groups and have them do different activities, give and proctor exams, and talk one-on-one with students,” he said. “You need to be able to create all the different types of interactions and activities that students have in a live class online to enable the engagement in the first place.”
On top of this, Chasen also said instructors need to be trained in how to effectively manage online classes, which can be different from running a physical classroom.
As for Baker, research has shown him that feedback is the key to procuring student engagement. “If you want students to engage, give them great feedback and help them feel connected. That leads to better retention and outcomes.”
Feedback can also help grow a human connection in learning, something that was lost during the pandemic.
“The more we can provide great feedback, the more we can build human connection and shift away from this mindset of personalised learning as an individualised lonely pathway to personalised learning, meaning you’re feeling connected to the people, content, profession that you’re pursuing or the research that you’re doing. That’s where we’re going to get real engagement,” continued Baker.
The Role of AI in Education
The use of AI—especially in education—is met with a range of reactions. For both Chasen and Baker, AI holds benefits for the future of education.
“Class has an AI teaching assistant. As the class is taking place, we’re constantly feeding it everything that’s being said from the teacher, students and all presented material,” explained Chasen. “If a student has a question during class, they can ask the teaching assistant instead of raising their hand and interrupting the teacher.” Based on the materials presented, followed by the AI’s general knowledge, it will answer the question.
AI is also used in Class to analyse student performance data and flag students who might be at risk or to prepare personalised lesson plans.
In the same vein, Baker described Brightspace’s predictive analytics engine, Student Success System, which is 87% accurate at predicting student grades. Even more meaningful was the fact that the more educators looked at the predictions, the grades further improved.
“There is a huge value in these types of technologies being incorporated into the educational experience,” said Baker, but he then added that decisions on how to use the tech can’t be rushed.
“There are quite a few traps and gnarly challenges as you race down these pathways that need to be dealt with. The privacy of student data, being able to make sure you do this in a safe way, making sure that you don’t take away the urgency of the humans in the equation.
“These are great predictive engines—they’re very helpful—but let’s make sure that the educators are still the ones that make the ultimate call on how on track the student actually is,” he said.
Education and Tech in 2030
The last question Hill asked Chasen and Baker was for them to predict where the relationship between education and technology would be in the year 2030.
Chasen has a vision for better equity and access to education in the future.
“What I’m hopeful for is that with the advancements made in online learning, with the standardisation of the LMS with live video capabilities now possible to put an entire institution online, you are going to start to see the lowering of cost of education and an increase of access,” he said.
“If you want to be able to get better work or move ahead or provide a better economy and support for your kids, family and neighbours, then you need to raise the bar on individuals’ and entire groups’ education. If we can really use technology to expand access and lower costs, then you can help people around the world,” said Chasen.
Baker sees technology as a tool to help advance what’s possible in education. “I think about technology on this adoption curve. You go from digitising what you do in the traditional classroom to optimising for better outcomes,” he said.
“As you continue to move up that curve, you can start to optimise or even transform the learning experience itself. Now that you’ve gone digital, you can embrace things like competency-based education, which you could do in the classroom before, but it would just be impossible. Let’s be real. You’re not going to run thousands of micro assessments for every student in the class and hand-grade that. You need technology to embrace some of these new advancements.
“In the old days, hundreds of years ago, people used the words desire, passion, pursuit or zeal to describe what it meant to study,” said Baker. “I think if we can get a generation of students seven years from now zeroing in on that human learning experience to tackle the most important problems, that’s when we have a real magical opportunity to transform higher education, K-12 and corporate learning.”
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